Ten theses on state politics in India
YOGENDRA YADAV and SUHAS PALSHIKAR
THE beginning of the election season is a good occasion to note the rise of state politics to the centre-stage of Indian politics. We all have silently accepted that the Lok Sabha election is nothing but an aggregation of state level elections. Our mind goes over at least two dozen parties, many of them state-wide, as we do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the coming elections. We have travelled a long way from 1970s and 1980s when this was not the case, when national electoral waves swept across states, and electoral projections were about how the national mood was swinging for or against a nationwide party.
The rise of state politics as an autonomous domain invites and requires theoretical attention by students of comparative politics. This essay offers a preliminary frame for such a comparative analysis by identifying some key issues that need to be enquired into and offering working hypotheses for each of these lines of enquiry. Before turning to these it may be useful to understand what we mean by the autonomy of state politics and why it needs more attention than it has so far received.
Clearly, when we talk about the autonomy of state politics, we are talking about autonomy from national politics. In the last two decades, state politics has broken free of the logic of national politics and has acquired a rhythm and logic of its own. This manifests itself in many ways related to one another.
First, states have emerged as the effective arena of political choice. If the people voted in state assembly elections held in 1970s and 1980s as if they were choosing the prime minister, they now vote in the parliamentary elections as if they are choosing their chief minister. In their eyes an individual constituency is too small and the country too big; it is at the level of the state that the voters make their choice.
Second, the nature of political choice now varies from state to state. We have moved a long way from the old Congress vs. Opposition scenario that was replicated all over the country. Nor have we entered a multi-party system in all the states. The Lok Sabha may present the picture of an intensely fragmented multi-party system, but at the state level we can find all kinds of contests: bipolar, triangular, four cornered or even more fragmented.
Third, ‘regional parties’ or state-wide parties, have become more salient than ever before. One cannot even begin to play the favourite national sport of ‘kaun banega PM’ without factoring in the prospects and the proclivities of the AIADMK, TDP, SP, BSP and the TMC, even if one overlooks the regional parties that are now somewhat stable allies of the UPA or the NDA. The state units of national parties too are more independent, at least in terms of the issues, strategies and styles, if not leadership, than used to be the case. In some non-trivial ways the CPM units in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura are three different parties.
Fourth, following from the first three, if the unit and the nature of political choice varies from state to state, so does the outcome. The changing fortunes of political parties are not replicated across state boundaries in ways that was the case in the past. For instance, currently the four big states of South India are being ruled by four very different political formations: Congress in AP, BJP in Karnataka, DMK-led alliance in Tamil Nadu and the LDF in Kerala. The Hindi heartland that used to swing together is now a political mosaic. In terms of pattern, anti-incumbency is the norm in many states, but not everywhere.
Fifth, governmental outcomes have become more variegated at the state level. Citizens’ access to various goods and services varies across the country, within each state, district and town and even village. But the most significant variation now is the one among different states, which is a function of how everyday politics, including social movements and political struggles, relates to the governmental apparatus.
Sixth, state level politics is freer of the control of national politics and is often in a position to dictate terms to national politics. This happens in the most visible manner when state-wide parties determine the agenda of national politics or enjoy an upper hand in their bargain with national parties.
Finally, a long-term process of differentiation of political community has ensured that the citizens’ identity has crystallized around states. The reorganization of states along linguistic lines had set off this process. But a political community by that time had not emerged along the boundaries of states. The recent era in the evolution of democratic politics has witnessed the emergence of states as the markers of political identity. Each state has developed a distinctive political culture, its own vocabulary of politics. Some of the long-term political trends and patterns have also differentiated along state lines.
Interest in and study of state level political processes is not new. Even in the sixties and the seventies, when the focus was on the ‘all-India’ patterns, attention was indeed given to state specific processes. However, most studies of state politics tended to emphasize the peculiarities of each state and thus develop a state-specific story.1 Somehow, state politics was seen in terms of developing political trajectories that were independent of all-India politics. Elsewhere, we have dealt with these developments.2
The 1980s and the early ’90s witnessed a lull in study of the states and state politics though the developments of the ’90s forcefully brought back the states into the consciousness of the students of Indian politics. But this development did not really receive the kind of attention it deserved: states were now recognized as the main theatre for the unfolding of the drama; state parties became the focus of attention; and state level electoral verdicts came to be analyzed for explaining national electoral outcomes. But all this still happened within the confines of the state-specific stories rather then by weaving the threads together.
Myron Weiner, one of the pioneers of the study of state politics in India, had long back recognized the need to go much beyond this approach.3 He made a powerful plea for using the state level studies to develop a comparative perspective on state politics in India. In retrospect it is clear that Weiner was ahead of his times. The comparative frame that Weiner proposed was only an initial sketch. The contributors to his volume found it difficult to follow his suggestion. Nonetheless, his early work does underscore the need to adopt a comparative framework. More recently, following the lead of Kohli,4 many more comparative studies of state politics have emerged.5 Most of these involve two or more states in a comparative design. This welcome development might benefit from some reflections on the overarching framework.
Such a reflection must begin with some consideration of what is the objective of comparison. Discussions of India’s tryst with democracy repeatedly show that this has not produced uniform results across time and space: there have been moments of concern, hiccups, bleak disappointments and jubilation; there have also been terrains where these moments were strongly or weakly experienced. In other words, the quality of democracy has varied over time and across states. This is not the place to go into the vast literature on the subject. Suffice it to indicate here that by quality of democracy we mean not just the smooth functioning of the basic legal-constitutional apparatus of democracy but also the fulfilment of essential regulative tasks and providing access to symbolic and material resources to the citizens in a way that opens up the possibility of a further deepening of the democratic norm.
Thus, it is not difficult to see that different states of the Indian union have a variegated record on these aspects of democracy. We propose that a comparison across states might help us better understand this variation as also in developing an explanatory framework. It might also salvage the study of state politics from primarily focusing on state-specific engagement. Thus understood, the sub-discipline of comparative politics could be transformed in the Indian context into a comparative study of the quality of democracy across Indian states.
In what follows we suggest some themes that could become the focus of such a comparative study of democracy across the states in India. Each of these themes invites us to ask a question that permits a meaningful comparison. For each of these we also propose an initial working hypothesis, boldly and baldly presented here as theses. The basic idea is to provoke discussion and stimulate further studies that might challenge the initial formulations offered here.
Impact of legacy: The very first question concerns the burden of history or the impact of political legacy. To what extent can the differentials in the quality of democracy be explained with reference to the conditions that existed at the time of independence? Which aspects of political legacy continue to have greater imprint on the state of affairs today?
With the benefit of hindsight we can make a distinction between two aspects of political legacy. Most states began their democratic political journey around 1950 and some even later. As we move away from the founding moment, we see a gradual erosion of the impact of the erstwhile institutional and administrative histories in ways that are not apparent at the national level. At the time of independence, one of the major differences was between the areas under princely rule and areas under direct British rule. The former had less intense popular struggles generally and somewhat higher levels of influence of the feudal social and political order. This distinction clearly mattered in the early post-independence period, as witnessed in the success of many ex-princely rulers and the Swatantra party in those areas. These differences accounted for the structure of political competition in these areas, often between Congress and Rightist forces in many parts of the country.
Today, it would be hard to detect the boundaries of princely and British India in the map of democratic politics. The nature of party competition has radically changed. The Congress has been marginalized in many states that it dominated in the 1950s. Although most of the big parties of today trace their legacy to one or the other party that existed in 1952, the structure of party competition is entirely different. The inherited map of politics has thus more or less faded away. Perhaps to a lesser extent we can say the same about the quality of democratic governance. The ‘laggards’ of today are not necessarily the states with poor quality of governance sixty years back. Today we are used to distinguishing between states in the South and West on the one hand and those in the North and the East on the other. This line dividing the ‘advanced’ and the ‘backward’ states did not exist in 1947.
It would, however, be hasty to conclude that the past does not matter. The political impact of movements and ideas appears to be more enduring. Areas that came under the influence of communist or socialist movements in the thirties or forties still bear the legacy of that influence, either as a dominant political force (Kerala, West Bengal, Tripura, Bihar, UP) or as protest movements and forces that shape politics (Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Karnataka, Maharashtra).
Politics in areas that were marked by social justice movements (Tamil Nadu, Kerala) is different today from the politics of other areas; areas influenced by the Ambedkarite movement (Maharashtra, UP) continue to throw up different patterns from other areas. States that witnessed separatist or secessionist movements (Nagaland, Mizoram, Punjab) or those which experienced major political movements (Bihar, Gujarat, Assam) still bear the legacy of those movements. Even when the structure of political competition appears familiar, the terms of competition are very different across different states and reflect the ideological contestations of the past.
We can thus present the first thesis: The political legacy of movements and ideologies at the state level has proved more enduring than that of institutions and organizations.
Political integration: The second set of questions has to do with the nature of integration of the state with the Indian Union, integration within the state and its distinctiveness from other states. To what extent has the state become a political community conscious of its identity and existence? How well has this community integrated with the larger national political community? Does such a community mark its boundaries from its neighbours on the basis of the political boundaries of the state? Does the community face serious challenge from smaller, sub-regional communities?
Writing forty years ago, Myron Weiner commented upon the fact that most of the states, especially those in the Hindi heartland, had not emerged as a political community. Today we have passed that stage. Regional histories, a common cultural-linguistic universe and political experience have combined to ensure that the boundaries of the modern public sphere are often coterminous with the boundaries of the state. This is the level at which political choices are made and intelligible contestations emerge; it is the terrain where people meaningfully relate to the ‘political’. Compared to the condition fifty years back, every state has become more conscious of its regional identity and its existence as a self-contained political community.
No doubt there are differences in the level of identity consciousness. This consciousness is weaker in Hindi heartland states like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh that lack a distinctive language or political culture. The struggles for a linguistic state sharpened this process in states like AP, Maharashtra and Punjab, while regional identity found expression through other movements in Tamil Nadu (Dravid movement), Assam (anti-foreigners movement), Mizoram (insurgency) and West Bengal (communist movement). Different states have also witnessed different trajectories in this respect. Maharashtra and Gujarat both are becoming more regional than before (though the expressions and the political outcomes are different). At the same time, regional self-consciousness is no longer a central factor in driving the politics of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.
Finally, regional consciousness combines with other identities in different ways: caste, class and religion both compete with region as also strengthen the region as the basis of political competition. Therefore, in some states –Tamil Nadu or Punjab – caste and/or religion play a crucial role in shaping the regional, whereas in Gujarat, the regional has facilitated the rise of the religious consciousness. As a rule we can say that the strengthening or otherwise of political community is less a function of pre-existing cultural unity in the state and more an outcome of its political articulation in recent times.
The rise of state-wide political communities has not, however, weakened the ties of the states with the Indian Union. If anything, the more fully integrated a state is within itself, the greater is the ease with which it exists with the larger union. It is important to note that almost all the states that have witnessed a long-standing separatist strand are marked by deep internal divisions of different kinds, be it linguistic (Nagaland), religious (Punjab), ethnic (Manipur) or linguistic and religious (Jammu and Kashmir) that feed into separatist politics. Nevertheless, since the political leadership at the Centre has accepted a legitimate role for regional identities, the states are more integrated with the Indian Union than was the case fifty years ago.
At the same time, the rise of state-level political communities has not suppressed the rise of sub-regional consciousness. Since region is a product of the political experience, and because many states include smaller regions that are incongruent with the dominant regional experience, almost every big state now has identifiable and backward sub-regions: North Bengal, Western Orissa, Poorvanchal, Bundelkhand, besides the famous instances of Telangana and Vidarbha. Whenever economic grievance and availability of a political instrument have combined, the sub-region constitutes a more salient basis of local politics as in Telangana and Vidarbha. Sometimes it even allows for a rather painless creation of new states, such as the three new states in the Hindi.
Thus state-wide or sub-regional consciousness is neither the natural nor permanent basis of politics; such a consciousness is partly a result of the project of cultural homogenization and political consolidation in each state or region. Nor can we think of regional or sub-regional identifications as proto-nationalisms that are bound to subvert national unity and suppress smaller identities.
Second thesis: The emergence of states as real and imagined political communities has intensified political regionalism without weakening the ties with the larger, national unit or suppressing the emergence of sub-regional communities.
Power sharing mechanisms: The third set of questions has to do with institutional mechanisms and practices for devolution of power at two different levels. How has the relationship of the states with the Union changed in terms of distribution of powers? And to what extent have the states shared their powers with their administrative and political sub-units?
In general a common political institutional frame has ensured that institutional difference is not a key factor in understanding the differences in the quality of democracy across different states. Some ‘special provisions’ for a few states did facilitate greater autonomy for the government and greater space for respecting their specificity, but only when these provisions were given a free political play (Sikkim after the merger and Mizoram after the accord, but not in Jammu and Kashmir). At the same time, special provisions have perpetuated local oligarchies, not exactly strengthened democracy in those areas, and often weakened the links between the people and political power.
For the rest of the country, the relationship between the states and the Centre has been defined by the balance of two opposite forces: politics has ensured greater federalization of the Indian Union, while the working of economic processes and security apparatus has tended to flatten the differences across various states. Both these forces have also led to differentiation among states: the logic of politics has of late tended to favour states like Tamil Nadu that get to play a pivotal role at the Centre while the logic of economy has worked to the advantage of the more developed states and those with greater capacity to attract investment.
As for sharing of power within a state, the real tension lies between legal-constitutional advances and lack of political will. Though there have been a few institutional innovations for sub-regional autonomy, the Regional Development Boards in Maharashtra, the Darjeeling Hill Council in West Bengal and the Bodoland Development Council are instances that have made only a cosmetic difference in the absence of political will to share power.
Another area of post-Constitution innovation is the evolution of the Panchayati Raj institutions, but so far their impact on the quality of democracy is debatable. Till the nineties, this was the responsibility of the states and the states did come up with different strategies of addressing the challenge of democratic decentralization. There were first generation PRI institutions in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu where though the initiatives were formally speaking, bold, they turned out to be politically and administratively harmless since the existing political establishment managed to convert the PRI institutions into their extensions. Kerala, Karnataka and West Bengal constitute the second generation of PRI where the initiative strengthened local political mobilization and also generated support for the state level players to ward off their political adversaries at the Centre.
After the 73rd amendment, though the initiative slipped out of the hands of the states in terms of institutional innovation, the difference in implementation remained and proved to be crucial. This third generation of Panchayati Raj is characterized by a temporary coincidence of political design emanating at the top and the demands of party functionaries at the bottom. This initiative did create political space for grassroots activists of political parties, particularly women, Dalits, and OBCs. But Panchayati Raj is yet to account for serious differentials in the quality of democracy as it remains hostage to the machinations of governments that may be indifferent (Bihar, Jharkhand, UP) or to sabotage from above (as in Andhra Pradesh during TDP rule) or political hijacking (West Bengal).
Thesis three: The greater political clout of the states and their unwillingness to share power with their sub-units has blunted the democratizing impulse of institutional reforms and accentuated inequalities across states instead of reducing differences in access to power.
Political culture: The fourth question relates to the domain of political culture, including political ideologies and public opinion. How distinct is the culture of democracy in each state? How does this distinctiveness affect the nature of political choice and the quality of democracy?
At the time of independence, different states began with a very different political ethos or mass political attitude depending upon the nature of pre-modern culture, depth of the nationalist movement and the impact of other social and political movements. But soon a culture of democracy crystallized everywhere. This development did not mean that democracy wiped out all regional differences; instead, states evolved their different cultures of democracy depending on the presence of different parties and the nature of ideological contestations in the public sphere. Thus the culture of democracy reflects neither a continuity of pre-modern ethos nor is it an imitation of the borrowed ideas of democracy; the new cultures of democracy are distinctly modern yet specific to the state concerned. At the state level, for instance, the pressure to maintain high ideological form is somewhat relaxed. Hence, the seemingly non-ideological and pragmatic character of the culture of democracy at the state level and its emphasis on ‘getting the work done’.
Yet, woven into these cultures of democracy are various elements. In some situations one of these becomes the key or defining element. In sharp contrast to the dominant ethos of the pre-modern values and cultures, the ideas of dignity, equality and emancipation constitute a very important element of the democratic cultures across states. These have emerged from the anti-colonial movement and the struggles against the caste system and acquired a strong Indian content. It is possible to posit that the public discourse in states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra has been dominated by these concerns for the major part of the last half century. This, however, does not preclude the rise and spread of a strong populist element in the public culture – as in the case of Tamil Nadu and to some extent Maharashtra. States like Andhra Pradesh too have shown a turn towards this culture based on the key role of a semi-charismatic leadership.
The third element visible in the cultural expressions of many states is based on a strong sense of community-based majoritarianism. Many states of the North East as also Jammu and Kashmir are examples of this trend; parts of UP too exemplify this trait and, more recently, Gujarat has also turned towards this majoritarian norm. Fourth, as discussed above, region and regionalism also constitute the bases of political culture and formative elements of public opinion. In fact, the impact of equality, populism and majoritarianism is filtered by the regional element.
Thus, in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, populist culture is strongly associated with the regional element while in Gujarat more recently or in Punjab historically, the rise of a majoritarian norm filtered through the regional element. In Jammu and Kashmir too, the regional and religious combine to give the state its sharp sense of ‘difference’. The key point here is that these cultural expressions and features of public opinion shape political activity and the democratic enterprise in the states more than the traditional or pre-given values and norms about the public sphere and power.
Thesis four: The spread of a distinctive culture of democracy has given a regional flavour to political practice without ensuring a democratic culture, as emancipatory ideas confront majoritarianism and the populist tendency faces pragmatism.
Political participation: The fifth question relates to the degree, intensity and the quality of political participation at the state level. How does political participation in the electoral and the non-electoral arena at the state level compare with the national level politics? What accounts for the substantial state-wise differences on this count? To what extent does higher political participation lead to better democratic access?
The democratic enterprise has successfully attracted popular participation at the state level. The emergence of the state as the principal locus of political choice has meant that electoral participation at the state level is higher than the national level. For the same reason, much of the political protest and movements are played out in the arena of state politics rather than that of national politics.
Over the years, the participation has gone up both in terms of electoral turnout and in election related political activity.6 The extent of participation varies from state to state. On the whole, smaller states seem to have higher participation. Other states with high participation rates are those dominated by the communist parties where the party machine is employed to mobilize the people. States like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, as also larger states like Bihar and UP record lower level of participation in elections and election related activity, but it may not be appropriate to say that they are low in terms of overall political participation and engagement.
There does not appear to be a direct relationship between electoral and non-electoral forms of political participation. On the whole, high rates of participation are indicative of an expansion of democracy. This expansion is often not accompanied by any improvement in the outcomes democratic enterprises produce, nor is there any evidence of a deepening of democracy. And yet, low system response does not discourage people from participating in politics and this helps the system in generating legitimacy for itself.
Thesis five: Higher and more intense political participation at the state level has widened the base of democracy and sustained its legitimacy without enriching the quality of democratic outcomes.
Social basis of political power: The sixth set of questions is about the sociology of power. Who controls political power at the state level and how? How narrow or wide, stable or unstable is the social profile of those who control political power? What are its consequences for the character of the democratic regime?
One of the common expectations about democratic politics in India has been that it will erode the power and legitimacy of the traditional structure of domination in the form of caste. This was expected to happen in a democratic transition of power from the forward ‘upper’ castes to the ‘lower’ and backward castes. Overall, this process has been under-way for quite some time, more visible at the state level than in national politics, but in quite dissimilar ways. In some states the transition has flown to the relatively more backward castes, while in others it slowed down after reaching the middle castes, and in yet others, the transition more or less failed to take off and the upper castes retained their power.
The main story here is, of course, the rise of the middle peasant castes – either one caste or a combination of middle castes through a formidable cluster – as the main claimants of power in the democratic set up. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana and Punjab represent this development. In states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and UP, this transition has gone beyond the middle castes; while in West Bengal, Orissa, MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Himachal and Uttarakhand, the dominance of traditional upper castes has persisted.
Often, states where the traditional patterns of domination persist, one witnesses relatively low levels of improvement in the quality of democracy coupled with low levels of politicization (with the exception of West Bengal). On the other hand, states where the transition has gone beyond the middle castes, reveal a mixed evidence of improved quality of democratic governance. In the South where this transition has stabilized, we find improvement in the quality of governance while states that are undergoing this transition only recently, are less well-governed and unsure of the outcome of this democratic transition.
Whenever a middle caste or caste cluster has emerged as a dominant political configuration, it is often associated with the rise of a political machine that ensures the electoral victory of this caste cluster as also the emergence of patronage networks through which the advantages of democratic transition are invariably routed. This development gives a semblance of stability to these regimes. Democratic politics acquires legitimacy because of the transition away from the upper castes; and yet, this same development has the potential of turning itself into a system of bondage. It arrests further spread of the democratic norm and puts a halt to democratization. The dominant middle castes become both the harbingers of democracy and the bottlenecks in the progress of democracy.
Thesis six: Political regimes at the state level acquire their anchorage as well as bondage from the rise of dominant castes to power, which represents as well as halts the transfer of power to lower social orders.
Economic limits to politics: The seventh question is one of political economy. How autonomous or otherwise is the democratic regime in dealing with organized economic interests? Who controls political power and for whose benefit?
The autonomy of state politics is clearly not to be confused with autonomy of state power vis-à-vis dominant economic interests. If anything, the rise in the autonomy of state politics in recent times has been accompanied by a decline in their autonomy in the economic sphere. First, while states have gained political clout and bargaining capacity, this does not translate into greater economic freedom from the controls of the central government. The federal fiscal relations remain heavily loaded against the state and the Centre continues to dictate many key economic policies irrespective of the political preferences of the state government (e.g. current LDF government in Kerala).
Second, as the state governments get more power to negotiate directly with multilateral and private actors, it appears that each of them is weaker in terms of collective bargaining and more vulnerable to capital blackmail (competing offers to Tata for the Nano cars is an example). Third, lower degree of transparency and weaker mechanisms of accountability in the states also means that state level political decisions are more likely to be governed by the vested interests of the dominant classes, if not reflect a naked use of political power for plundering economic and natural resources.
Fourth, the shift in many states from an alignment of political power with the interests of the big farmers to those of the industrialists and capitalists has meant a shift from an indirect to a direct intervention in political decision-making for the big farmers lacked the wherewithal to monitor and control a vast range of economic decisions. And finally, the historic coincidence of the rise in the autonomy of state politics in an era of New Economic Policy has meant that the states have to simultaneously deal with a limited range of policy options, a media climate hostile to pro-people public action, and face multi-pronged interventions of the various arms of global economic players.
The results of all these developments are for everyone to see. Some states have had political leadership that almost openly represents the dominant economic interests (Haryana, Gujarat, Orissa, Jharkhand); others do it less brazenly. Even big state governments have little option but to accept the logic of dominant classes for fear of losing out on investments and development (UP, Bihar); in some other states, the political elites have quietly abandoned the agrarian interests (Maharashtra, AP). In state after state, governments are openly adopting policies that restrict the choices available to the people, and bypass ordinary democratic procedures in arriving at crucial decisions about relocating or depriving large sections of the society from livelihood, often restricting their right to resist or even protest.
The political terrain is no more the arena where crucial economy-related decisions are made; instead, it has been reduced to the arena of formally adopting and implementing economic policies that appear to be pre-given and without any alternative or option. If one was looking for evidence for the famous quip that governments are nothing but the executive arms of the capitalist class, many states in contemporary India would fit the bill.
Thesis seven: As state politics gains greater autonomy vis-à-vis national politics and the central government, its capacity to resist corporate and other organized interests appears severely eroded, often producing regimes that act as the agents of dominant classes.
Party political competition: The eighth question concerns the nature and consequence of party political competition. How different is the emerging party system from the national system of party political competition? Does it offer a greater and more meaningful choice to the citizens?
Just as the ‘Congress system’ was a point of attraction for many observers, many today appear convinced that the rise of coalitions in itself augurs well for democracy. Therefore, much of the writing on Indian politics during the late eighties and nineties was full of expectation about the new party system. In general, however, while the format of party competition has somewhat opened up over the years, the nature of choice available is quite narrow and often narrowed down further. This is the paradox thrown up by the nineties: state after state experienced the rise of competitive politics that witnessed the entry of new occupants in the political space but this competition rarely led to new policies, programmes or institutional devices. We describe this system as a system of competitive convergence.7
Within this broader framework of convergence, we can identify four major types of party political competition in contemporary times: (i) bipolar convergence (Rajasthan, MP, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, HP, Uttarakhand), (ii) multiparty-bipolarity (TN, Punjab, Kerala, Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar, Tripura), (iii) stable multi-polar convergence (AP, Karnataka, UP, Assam, Jharkhand, J&K, Manipur), and (iv) fluid multi-polarity (Arunachal, Mizoram, Haryana, West Bengal).
Notwithstanding the general cynicism prevailing about political parties, the arena of party political competition has greater autonomy in determining the quality and outcome of democracy. What matters in this domain though is not so much the format of party competition which has attracted much analytical attention, but the range of substantive choices available. We hypothesize that the shrinking of the choices negates the gains made by expansion in numeric choices that emerged in the last two decades.
Thesis eight: A system of competitive convergence has meant that the opening up of the format of party competition has not led to greater and more meaningful political choices for the citizen.
Peoples’ movements and struggles: The ninth question takes us beyond party politics. How active and powerful are the various peoples’ movements and struggles in the state? In which ways do they affect the political agenda and the quality of democracy?
The limitations of the party system of competitive convergence can be overcome by the non-party sector, especially the social and political movements. At the state level, peoples’ movements and popular struggles can be more effective, especially if the state is smaller is size. But this possibility is differentially realized, through very different channels and with strikingly different outcomes. Those states with more dense social and political movements tend to experience a more vibrant democracy, both because these movements act as a check, feedback and a resource for the political parties and also because civil society organizations draw their vibrancy from these movements (Kerala, Tamil Nadu). There are, of course, states that have witnessed social and political movements and yet await their turn to a qualitatively better democratic environment (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) and states that once boasted of a vibrant legacy of movements and civil society but have lately lost the momentum (Maharashtra).
When the principal channel of popular protest is a violent movement, it often succeeds in shaking up the established consensus (though not always, as in Punjab) and the political elite, but at a very high cost to the people, the democratic norms and the character of state power, both at the local and national level. This is borne out by examples of Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Nagaland, Manipur, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and so on. In those places which have not witnessed any serious social and political movement (such as Rajasthan, Haryana, much of UP and Himachal Pradesh), politics remains insulated from societal concerns and is unable to receive societal feedback and inputs.
Thesis nine: Struggles and movements seek to rupture the convergence of the political establishment but their non-political character limits their capacity to affect the political agenda.
Politics of violence: Finally we need to ask a question about the emerging phenomenon of politics of violence in many forms. What is the impact of various forms and degrees of political violence in the state? How does it affect the space for democratic politics?
The last quarter of a century has seen the rise of all forms of violence in public life: violence as an instrument of electoral mobilization, violence as an instrument of achieving high political objectives, secessionist violence, and so on. Much of this violence, directed at state machinery and functionaries, only results in a further brutalization of the state machinery. The standard response of the state has been to meet violence with tough military measures. This, however, does not ensure the use of state force when more or less organized mob violence is staged to target and hound minority communities.
Except in cases of communal violence, the state has routinely adopted a militarist approach to terrorism and violence. This has given birth to issues of state repression in Manipur, Nagaland and parts of Assam. The response to militant violence in Punjab, and terrorist violence more recently, has also been one of flexing the repressive state apparatus. In addition to using state repressive machinery, Chhattisgarh has also witnessed the formation of a civil militia to combat collective violence.
Apart from these instances of violence, there are many other areas of concern – everyday coercion in Haryana, UP or Bihar, party violence in West Bengal, and frequent recourse to vigilantism in Maharashtra. All these have a common effect: they erode the democratic space; implicitly justify the use of coercion by the state; provide justification for ‘strong’ laws and draconian powers to the police without any guarantee that governance will improve if political actors engaged in violence and coercion are put down or that civil society will be the stronger by employing strong state protection.
The growing concern about security and terror has led to increased emphasis, cutting across the states, on the security apparatus to the detriment of the civil and political rights and a democratic culture. This has affected politics in the states more severely, for human rights institutions and independent media tend to be weaker at the state level. Peripheral states in the North East and Jammu and Kashmir find greater corrosion of their autonomy due to greater focus on internal security.
Thesis ten: A rise in the politics of coercion and state response to it leads to a spiral of shrinking space for democratic politics.
What are the likely effects of these developments in terms of expansion and deepening of democracy in India? Does the rise of the state as a serious and autonomous platform of politics strengthen or weaken the hope for advance in the direction of democratic governance? In other words, is this rise good news for democracy?
By now, it has been almost two decades since this development started taking shape and we believe that it will now stabilize. Some consequences of the rise of states as an autonomous platform of politics are clearly good with the potential of steering democracy towards further expansion. Not only is the possibility of greater autonomy for the states in itself a welcome feature, it has also led to a differential party system that reflects the social context more clearly than was the case earlier. A new set of elites has been able to enter politics through the rise of regional parties, and gates have been opened up for higher participation in politics by more diverse sections than before.
However, it may be too early to celebrate this development without keeping in mind the constraints within which it takes shape. In the first place, this development does not help us overcome the indifferent record of India’s democracy in making institutions function properly and effectively. Nor can it help overcome the fundamental constraint of being bound to a social context that is mired in complex grids of domination and exploitation. The emergence of the states as the central platform of politics might actually weaken the capacity of democratic politics to withstand the pressures of organized economic interests; and may open the doors wider for consolidation of the oligarchic control of dominant social groups, reducing the real political choices available to the citizen.
But then, it is precisely this mixed balance sheet of possibilities and anxieties that makes the study of state politics an exciting and important enterprise.
1. Iqbal Narain, State Politics in India, Meenakshi Prakashan, Meerut, 1976; John R. Wood, State Politics in India: Crisis or Continuity? Westview Press, Boulder, 1984.
2. Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar, ‘From Hegemony to Convergence: Party System and Electoral Politics in the Indian States – 1952-2002’, Journal of the Indian School of Political Economy, January-June 2003, pp. 5-44.
3. Myron Weiner, State Politics in India, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1968.
4. Atul Kohli, The State and Poverty in India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987.
5. Rob Jenkins, Regional Reflections: Comparing Politics Across India’s States, OUP, New Delhi, 2004; John Harriss, : ‘Comparing Political Regimes across Indian States: A Preliminary Essay’, Economic and Political Weekly, 27 November 1999; pp. 3367-3377.
6. Yogendra Yadav, ‘Understanding the Second Democratic Upsurge: Trends of Bahujan Participation in Electoral Politics in the 1990s’, in Francine R. Frankel, Zoya Hasan, Rajeev Bhargava and Balveer Arora (eds.), Transforming India, OUP, New Delhi, 2000, pp. 120-45; Suhas Palshikar and Sanjay Kumar, ‘Participatory Norm: How Broad Based is it?’ Economic and Political Weekly, 18 December 2004, pp. 5412-17.
7. Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar, 2003, op.cit.